I get stuck on the concept of authority from time to time in my theological life. There is no doubt that this is an important concept and one that is at the center of just about every possible theological debate (not just the ones current to American culture, politics, and church). What has me stuck is the incredibly complex nature of authority. Sources of authority have influence on human thought and behavior on a largely unconscious level. While we may claim to consciously choose to believe or disbelieve the claims that we hear or read, we cannot change the fact that we receive them and are affected and shaped by them.
Life is filled with a complex polyphony of different narratives. We are constantly engaged in everyday hermeneutics, the task of interpreting and applying the tapestry of stories that we receive on a daily basis. This task is simply too big for the conscious mind to handle. We can, however, choose to focus our attention on specific narratives, on places where different narratives support one another, or on places where different narratives compete with one another. Quite naturally, theology tends to work within these narrowed parameters. To expect a more expansive approach may be somewhat unreasonable, given the limitations of the conscious mind, but we can at least acknowledge the fact that many different stories and sources of authority influence our thoughts, our beliefs, and our behaviors, whether we are consciously aware of them or not.
So, what is important is receptivity, the attitude with which we receive the information that we are given from a variety of sources. Our attitude toward sources of authority is largely influenced by parameters that are set up within the mind. We are naturally inclined to treat certain authorities with trust and others with suspicion. This may be a bit of a false dichotomy though. It might be more accurate to say that we sift what we receive from different sources through our own parameters, searching for the pieces that support our own narrative (what we tend to treat with trust) and pieces that compete with our own narrative (what we tend to treat with suspicion).
Theology depends upon a hermeneutic of trust. Simply stated, there must be a belief that God can be, and is, revealed through a variety of sources in order for theology to happen. Regardless of the parameters, one must be receptive to the divine communication present within those parameters on both conscious and unconscious levels. There must also be recognition that God can, and does, speak outside of those parameters.
I am still stuck on authority, largely because I am aware of its complexities and struggle to clearly define my own parameters. I can say, though, that I believe God to be the only true source of authority and in my spiritual life I strive to be increasingly receptive to Divine communication in whatever context I find myself in.
It may be somewhat puzzling that a post dealing with authority, hermeneutics, and revelation has made it this far without explicitly mentioning the Bible. I hope that it is apparent that my thoughts can easily be applied if the parameters for theological inquiry happen to be the Bible. The Bible is a complicated document, steeped in ancient cultural assumptions and read and interpreted through many different lenses for our own time. It also contains multiple narratives that can support one another or compete with one another. Finally, if not approached with receptivity to God (the ultimate source of authority) and a certain level of trust, the Bible is just an ordinary book.